The small Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, nestled in the mountainous shadow of Russia and China, is in crisis. In early April, mass demonstrations saw the country's unpopular ruler, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, quit the capital, Bishkek, and eventually flee to the nation of Belarus. Hopes bloomed for those seeking democracy and good governance in a part of the world short on both.
But last week, the new interim government headed by Roza Otunbayeva, an ex-minister under Bakiyev, postponed new elections that it had promised to hold in October until the end of 2011. A state of emergency was put into effect in the south of the country following thousands-strong protests and deadly clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that have raged following the fall of the Bakiyev regime. In an alarming power vacuum, criminal outfits, particularly those involved in weapons smuggling and trafficking narcotics from Afghanistan, have been gaining ground in parts of the country, according to local news reports.
The unrest caps a tumultuous five years. In 2005, Kyrgyzstan had what was hailed as the "Tulip Revolution" a popular rebellion that ousted a corrupt, authoritarian regime and promised just, democratic rule. But this April, thousands of protesters fed up with the misdeeds and corruption of the former revolutionaries who had taken control, Bakiyev in particular, stormed government office and effectively seized power in a sudden uprising. More than 80 people have died in this tiny nation of five million since then, and the interim government, which has also made promises of democratic renewal, looks weak and confused and is struggling to contain growing unrest. The first Kyrgyz revolution fell apart after five years; reports suggest the next installment could sputter far sooner.
Indeed, rumors of a counter-coup have grown while the interim government, composed of former members of the old guard as well as opposition groups, feuds amongst itself. A digital recording first posted on YouTube last week and circulated by Russian and Kyrgyz media is allegedly the voice of Maksim, Bakiyev's notoriously kleptocratic son, advising one of his uncles on how the family could return to power: "We just need 500 low-lives who could raise hell... [and] claim power," the voice says. "They just have to call themselves the interim government and say they already signed some decrees for peace and stuff."
The country's current crisis is in large part an indictment of the rotten politics of Central Asia, a vast region that still lives with the habits of over a century of autocratic rule from Moscow. Ever since splitting away from the crumbling U.S.S.R., the five "Stans" have been governed mostly by strongmen who cut their teeth as apparatchiks in Soviet power structures and pay fleeting lip service to the virtues of multi-party politics. There were hopes that Kyrgyzstan which boasts a considerably developed civil society and relatively outspoken press could buck the trend, but Tulip Revolution figurehead Bakiyev turned out to be one more autocrat in democrat's clothing. While allegedly embezzling state funds and securing lucrative contracts for friends and family, Bakiyev's rule saw widespread human rights abuses: dissidents disappeared, some were killed, and journalists were muzzled and often detained. Presidential elections last July were deemed by international observers to have been rigged.
That the international community did little to intervene is hardly surprising. To Western nations, Central Asia has been envisaged for centuries as a faraway thoroughfare the Silk Road is a "road" after all rather than the focal point of greater concerns. It remains so to this day. A report published in late April by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, detailed the collapse in Kyrgyzstan of a "state hollowed out by corruption and crime," yet one whose leadership had found ways to cozy up to foreign powers. It's the only country in the world that houses both U.S. and Russian military bases. Throughout Central Asia, the report argues, authoritarianism's "superficial stability is attractive to Western leaders who are looking for a safe environment to pursue commercial or security interests, such as the current effort to prosecute the war in Afghanistan."